A Jane Jensen-lead adventure game project is usually destined to be good, a slow-but-intriguing winding tale delving into myths, legends and murder. Let's just forget the recent casual games for a moment and concentrate on what she's most famous for, which is creating Gabriel Knight.
You see, Gabe's presence (not literally) in Gray Matter, Jensen's latest oeuvre, is palpable. The music is right out of the 1993 classic in terms of tone, although there's room for some shockingly bad music “southern gothic folk” from the Scarlet Furies that forced me to skip a cut-scene at one point.
The lanky haired schattenjäger's influence can also be felt right down to the root designs of the game, albeit in a more simplified fashion. The puzzles and the way you go about solving them is right out of Sins of the Fathers. Just a little bit easier and less obtuse at times.
Gray Matter starts in ominous fashion, torrential rain drenching the first of our heroes Samantha Everett and causing her clapped out old motorcycle to give up the ghost. Luckily, she just happens to be right next to a creepy manor house owned by our second hero, the reclusive Dr David Styles.
He's having trouble getting an assistant to help him with an experiment into the power of the brain (gray matter, the brain, you see what they did there?) and it just so happens Sam is a master of illusion, a magician if you will. Well, even if you won't, she is one and she's got a book of cunning ruses ready to use to help solve puzzles too, handily.
Sam's first goal is to attempt to flee, but she's ends up becoming inextricably linked with the increasingly spooky and macabre events surrounding Styles, his dead wife and the town of Oxford. As you progress through the eight chapters, mysterious events unfold and you'll find yourself, as both Samantha and David, trying to uncover the hidden motives of those around you. Until the damp squib of an ending, disappointingly.
If you didn't already know, this is a point-and-click adventure, although the console version (we're dealing with the PC one here) has attempted to get around the problem with a nifty workaround for the analogue sticks (apparently). With a mouse, it's just a case of clicking to look at or interact with an object, context sensitive actions becoming available developing on how much looking or interacting you might have done.
It's an annoying quirk that sometimes you have to look at a person before you can talk to them, even if it's obvious what that person does. A boat rental guy sitting in a boat rental hut isn't going to sell me timeshare, so why do I need to click to look at him to get the “he's a boat rental guy” description first.
Gray Matter also has the issue of having objects that are obviously usable that can only be activated once something else has been observed. So, in the last chapter, there's a machine you have to use, but even though it's highlighted – if you hit hot spot indicator key – you can only do anything with it once you've spoken to a guy who's hidden off screen in another room.
That's another thing, the fact some rooms extend off the screen, even though there's no indication that they do (and it's rare enough an occurrence that you never automatically check). That these rooms are almost universally gorgeously hand-drawn is some consolation, with some of the flowery, rustic scenery thrillingly lush in their beauty.
Oxford itself works to an extent as a setting, with the architecture of the old universities proving interesting to explore, although as is usual in modern adventures, there's bugger all people about. Either it's been hit by a nuclear blast and only a handful of people have survived or Oxford's only attended by about 10 students and a couple of lonely staff members (in impossibly luxurious offices). The town's no better, with about four re-used figures wandering the three street sections in an everlasting circle, and the pub being frequented by some grizzled nautical types.
The voice-acting is spotty too, which is a budgetary thing – gone are the days of a Jensen adventure attracting the likes of Mark Hamill, Tim Curry and the splendidly named Efrem Zimbalist Jr.. The two main characters are acceptable, but generally it's a completely unforgettable vocal affair, which is sad as some good performances would have helped the plot come alive more.
In terms of difficulty, Gray Matter doesn't require as much of the stuff (see, again?) to complete as previous Jensen titles, as often solutions to the puzzles are logical and/or limited to a few possibilities. This means you're making regular progress most of the time, although there are still too many times when you end up with no real idea as to how you should go about doing so. Then you check a walkthrough and throw a brick through the screen as you realise you were meant to look a whiteboard in the basement that has changed without your knowledge. Fiddlesticks to that.
For all the moaning, Gray Matter was decent, on the whole. It's probably, nowadays, the definition of a solid-yet-unspectacular adventure game. It's got a good supernatural-y plot with mediocre acting, luscious backgrounds overlaid with sometimes stilted mo-cap characters. It also descends into a mess in the final chapter, in this reviewer's opinion. But it's strangely intriguing enough to have potential for a sequel if Jensen is of the mind to make one. Which'll probably be about the same in terms of quality.
- Evokes Gabriel Knight memories
- Puzzles are, on the whole, testing but not overly so
- I learned some magic tricks by playing it
- Mediocre voice acting
- Stupid unusable-then-usable objects, plus too much looking
- Oxford population: 20 humans, one rabbit
The Short Version: A solid adventure that suffers from the low production values of the modern age. Also, it has a silly final chapter.